What do a giant hairy stuffed toy gorilla, a dented laptop computer, and a rat have in common?
Each is the “hook” of a story told by Matthew Luhn, former Pixar animator and story artist. Stories are basic to human experience — back to the time when primitives discussed life or death situations like hunting bison and evading tigers — and very important to marketing any product or service, according to Luhn. When they are done right they can strengthen a brand. Luhn, a popular speaker, likes to challenge audiences to name their favorite companies. Chances are they have stories that make them stand out.
Luhn knows about stories and brands. He spent two decades with Pixar, where his resume came to include “Toy Story” and two of its sequels, “Monsters Inc.” and “Monsters University,” as well as “UP,” “Cars,” “Finding Nemo,” and more.
But before the story work Luhn used his skills to help hawk products back when computer animator Pixar was scrambling to pay its rent. There and in other jobs he worked at storyboarding and writing commercials for fast-food and breakfast cereal companies, among others — even a toy store chain.
Along the way Luhn discovered what he really wanted was to be a professional storymaker and he got breaks at Pixar that drew him into that role full-time.
So, “for over 25 years my job title has been the ‘Guy Who Makes People Cry’,” says Luhn (pron. “Lunn”). “Yes, I’m in the business of making kids and grown adults cry in theaters, living rooms, airplanes, and anywhere else they can view a movie. But along with making people cry, I’m also in the business of making people laugh, cheer, think, and most importantly, experience something that transforms their life.”
“For over 25 years my job title has been the ‘Guy Who Makes People Cry’.”
— Matt Luhn, professional storymaker and speaker
In fact, the best stories aren’t one emotion or another. “People don’t want stories that are just happy, happy, happy, or sad, sad, sad,” says Luhn. Good stories are a blend, “a roller coaster” ride, he insists.
Some financial marketers would scoff. They would say no one can make banking more interesting beyond the clichéd memes populating the industry’s ads for years. Luhn disagrees.
Spreadsheets and PowerPoints don’t sell idea. But stories do.
“Even with the driest, most analytical information, you can still enhance it with just a little bit of storytelling,” says Luhn. “Whatever you do, make people feel something.” Wrap a skillful story around dry ingredients and people will not only connect with it but remember the details better, he insists.
No one tells a great story without crafting, according to Luhn. Among the elements going into them:
1. It All Begins with a Hook
Without a proper hook, the rest of the story doesn’t matter — no one will hear it. Luhn tells the stories of the three hooks described earlier in the first chapter of his new book, The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond.
• The rat serves as an example of Luhn’s advice to hook people quickly. He sold the idea that became “Ratatouille” with ten words to impatient Hollywood types:
“What if a rat wanted to become a French chef?”
• The gorilla was one of his grandfather’s schemes to draw San Franciscans into Jeffrey’s Toys, the family store. The behemoth, set outside the shop and able to wave a mechanical arm, couldn’t be ignored, and people were lured inside.
Luhn’s grandpa was himself master of the hook. Sometimes he’d seat his son, Matt Luhn’s dad, at a table by the shop window so passersby could watch him assembling plastic models.
• The dented laptop is the most illustrative hook for financial marketers. Luhn met a woman who sells health insurance using her damaged computer.
“Right before she starts her sales pitch with a customer she opens up her dented laptop,” writes Luhn. “The customer can’t help but ask what happened to her computer. This curiosity sets up the beginning of a story.”
The story: The saleswoman had to stomp on the brakes, giving herself whiplash and causing her computer to fly off the car seat, suffering damage on landing.
“Due to her injury,” Luhn writes, “she went to the hospital — and experienced firsthand how the very health company she worked for actually operated. She was overwhelmed by the great service she received — everyone treated her well, even though they had no idea she worked for the company. The experience made her truly proud of her company.”
And she told that story every time she set out to make a sale.
If simple yet dramatic storytelling can sell health insurance, what could it do for your bank or credit union?
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2. You Have to Show a Transformation
“While a great hook catches our attention,” writes Luhn, “it is the promise of change that brings us to the edge of our seats and keeps us listening. Because the very next thing an audience wants to know after you hook them is how are you going to change them. Are you going to make them healthier? Wealthier? Happier? Inspired?”
Luhn believes that few people like change, but they can be inspired to change because they tend to adopt the viewpoint of the hero of a story. The cowboy “Woody” in “Toy Story” goes from being the ringleader of Andy’s toys and insanely jealous of newcomer Buzz Lightyear to being a better leader who has found a friend in the plastic spaceman.
3. To Make a Connection You Must Know Your Audience, Through Data
For a story to resonate with listeners, the storyteller must be telling the right story to the right audience, whether it be a stadium-full of people or an individual.
“For a story to resonate with listeners, the storyteller must be telling the right story to the right audience, whether it be a stadium-full of people or an individual.”
“Collecting data is the best way to connect with a specific audience, revealing patterns, trends, and associations, particularly as it relates to human behavior and interactions,” according to Luhn.
But sometimes the research is personal and anecdotal, though just as meaningful.
Jeffrey’s Toys, the multi-generational Luhn family business, needed a new location after a landlord quadrupled the rent. But the ideal new site was on its way to being rented to a coffee franchise. Luhn’s father asked his son, now grown, to help persuade the landlord to award the lease to the toystore.
Luhn gathered facts. The landlord’s building had been in the family for generations. He and his family had been part of San Francisco culture for years, as had Jeffrey’s. And both families were Jewish, and had at times suffered discrimination. Luhn told the story of the family store’s history, its trials and triumphs, touching on each common thread.
The landlord agreed to give the toystore the location.
“I had sold him more than the toy store,” Luhn recounts in his book. “I was selling him on me, and my dad. A big part of your story or message is about you, who you are, your personality, your track record, your voice, your background, and your passion.”
The final two steps are structure — good stories have a beginning, middle and end — and authenticity.
“The person, company, or fictional character that tells the best story will always make the strongest connection with the audience,” says Luhn. “Wouldn’t you like to be that person?”